It’s normal for people to accumulate at least a bit of discharge in the corners of their eyes while they sleep, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal to wake up feeling like the eyes are glued shut. In some cases, excessive eyedischarge can be a sign of an underlying health condition.
This article will discuss the ins and outs of eye discharge to give consumers an idea of what’s normal and what’s a good cause for concern.
What Is Eye Discharge?
Eye discharge, often referred to colloquially as having “sleep” in your eyes, is comprised of mucus, oil and skin cells. Medically, it’s known as “rheum.” This discharge serves a protective function, at least when it’s being produced in small amounts, because it removes potentially harmful debris from the eye’s surface and tear ducts.
During the day, rheum gets washed away when people blink. People don’t blink at night, though, so rheum builds up and starts to harden, usually starting in the corner of the eyes then moving along the lash line. Rheumcan be wet and sticky or hard and crusty. In healthy people, it’s usually cream-colored and does not build up in excessive quantities, even at night.
Where Does Eye Mucus Come From?
Rheum is a function of the eye’s tear film. This watery mucus is produced by the conjunctiva, the thin, clear membrane that covers the inner surface of the eyelids and the front of the eye, and is excreted by the meibomian glands. This helps to explain a second term for rheum: meibum.
Meibum keeps the eyes lubricated between blinks while people are awake. Since people close their eyes when they sleep, there’s no way for the tear film to wash the meibum away (1). That’s what causes it to collect in the corners of the eyes and sometimes dry out before waking.
How Do You Stop Eye Discharge?
It’s important to know the difference between healthy rheum production and potential symptoms of underlying diseases. Healthy meibum is yellow and watery while it’s still beneath the eyelids, although it can harden on contact with the air.
Unhealthy eye discharge is crusty, more plentiful, and may be green or darker yellow. It may also appear at the edge of the eyelids instead of the corners of the eyes and can become so severe that it makes people feel liketheir eyes are glued shut in the morning.
Eye Discharge May Have a Medical Cause that Requires Treatment
The key to telling the difference between healthy eye discharge and unhealthy crust is to compare the amount, color and consistency of the discharge to previous days. If it’s becoming more plentiful, changing in color, or becoming harder or less watery, there may be something wrong. It’s best to visit an eye doctor as soon as possible.
There are several underlying conditions that cause excess rheum production, so pay attention to symptoms and write them down if necessary to tell the doctor exactly what’s happening.
- Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye). Pink eye affects the conjunctiva, which is full of tiny blood vessels. When they become inflamed, they turn red or pink. Pink eye can be caused by allergies, viral infections, orbacterial infections and it almost always causes excessive production of white, yellow, or green mucus, which may accumulate along the lash line while patients sleep.
- Blepharitis and MGD. Blepharitis is a chronic disorder that affects patients’ eyelids. It can cause either, or both, inflammation of the hair follicles along the lash line and abnormal oil production. A second condition called Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD) shares these symptoms but also causes foamy discharge, yellow or green pus, and more substantial crusting along the eyelids. These are serious, chronic conditions that must be diagnosed and treated by a doctor.
- Stye/Hordeolum. Styes, also sometimes called a hordeolum, may form due to clogged meibomian glands or infected eyelash follicles. They look a little like pimples and are often accompanied by swelling, tenderness, yellow pus, excessive eye crust, and discomfort. While styes usually resolve on their own, they can be painful in the meantime, so most patients use home remedies or over-the- counter products to alleviate their discomfort. More about that later.
- Dry Eyes. Dry eye syndrome occurs when patients don’t produce enough tears or meibum. It’s a chronic condition that causes the surface of the eyes to become inflamed and irritated, often causingother concerning symptoms like blurry vision, foreign body sensation, and red, bloodshot eyes. Somewhat paradoxically, dry eye syndrome can also cause patients’ eye discharge to become excessively watery, which prevents it from providing adequate lubrication.
- Eye Injuries. When foreign bodies like dirt particles, debris or chemical substances make their way into the eyes, it can cause them to produce a watery discharge. This is a natural protective response and isn’t anything to worry about. If blood or pus are present as well, that changes the situation completely. This type of eye injury should be treated as a medical emergency and patients should seek immediate care.
- Corneal Ulcers. Corneal ulcers are serious, abscess-like infections that impact the cornea. They can result from both untreated eye infections and acute trauma. When not treated immediately, they can cause total vision loss. Corneal ulcers come with a whole host of unpleasant symptoms. They include pain, redness, swelling, and thick eye discharge that can impede vision.
- Dacryocystitis. Dacryocystitis is a type of tear duct blockage. It occurs when the tear drainage system becomes inflamed, causing a swollen bump beneath the inner eyelid. It causes sticky eye discharge, excessive watering, blurred vision, pain and redness.
- Contact-Related Eye Infections. Consumers who wear contacts are more prone to developing certain eye infections. Even in healthy people, wearing contacts can lead to dryness and irritation and can cause excessive mucus production. Although some amount of extra discharge is normal, patients who notice sudden or extreme differences in the amount of sleep in their eyes upon waking should see a doctor to rule out more serious conditions.
Can a Cold Cause Crusty Eyes?
A cold can cause crusty eyes. According to researcher Ron Eccles, “The nasolacrimal duct may be obstructed at its opening into the nose by inflammation and congestion of blood vessels in the nasal epithelium around the opening of the duct, causing an accumulation of tears and the symptom of watery eyes” (2). These same blockages can also lead to the buildup of excess eye gunk in the morning.
Eye Discharge in Babies
Eye discharge is common in newborns. The American Academy of Ophthalmology estimates that around 20% of newborns have blocked tear ducts (3), but thankfully, most of the time this condition can be treated at home. Just use a clean, soft cloth dipped in lukewarm water to wipe away the discharge and gently massage the blocked tear duct to encourage it to open. If this doesn’t resolve the problem, bring it up at the infant’s next doctor’s appointment.
Preventing or Managing Eye Discharge at Home
For those who have already ruled out serious acute or chronic eye conditions, the best course of action is home treatment. There are a few ways consumers can prevent or manage eye discharge at home.
- Taking Prescriptions. When patients visit their doctors for treatment, they may receive prescription antibacterial eye drops or antiviral eye drops (4). Depending on what’s wrong, the doctor may also prescribe ointments, antihistamine eye drops, or decongestants. Take all medications exactly asprescribed.
- Ungluing Stuck Eyelids. The best way to unglue eyelids stuck together from excess rheum is to wet a washcloth using warm water and place it on the face. Leave it in place for a few minutes, then use it to wipe away the gunk. This can also help to relieve symptoms like itchiness and general discomfort.
- Stop Wearing Eye Makeup. Those who have chronic eye conditions like blepharitis or are just sick of dealing with excess gunk in the corners of their eyes should stop wearing eye makeup immediately. It can exacerbate underlying conditions.
- Use Contacts with Caution. Contacts can cause eye infections and exacerbate existing problems. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding cleaning and storage, and if severe symptoms appear, stop wearing them. Once the infection has cleared, patients can go back to wearing their contacts, but they should still exercise caution.
- Use Eyelid Cleaners. Over-the-counter eyelid cleaners like TheraLife remove excess oil and keep the eyelids free from bacteria, mites, and debris. Some products can even restore normal tear duct function in patients with dry eye syndrome. TheraLife is a medically reviewed product recommended by doctors, so it’s the best solution for consumers who want to treat their conditions at home.
Take Care of Your Eyes
A small amount of eye discharge is normal and healthy. When the quantity, color, or consistency of this discharge changes substantially, though, it may be a sign of trouble.
Consumers who are concerned that they may have serious underlying diseases should visit their eye doctors right away. Those who just want to put a stop to eye boogers are better off just taking at-home solutions like those described above.
- American Academy of Ophthalmologywww.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-is-blocked-tear-duct
- Good Rxwww.goodrx.com/eye-infection/drugs